A year or so ago I wrote a blog post reflecting on my memories of childhood in Royal Tunbridge Wells and the reaction from the town itself was so enthusiastic that I decided to continue delving into the past and to resuscitate some scenes of my youth.
27 Boyne Park
The town of Tunbridge Wells is built in a valley between two ridges, one to the south (Forest Road) and one to the North (Mount Ephraim). We lived in Boyne Park, a rather well-to-do road off Mount Ephraim. The houses were mostly been built around the turn of the 20th Century and were substantial red-bricked monuments to the wealth and success of professional gentlemen who had served their country – and their empire – abroad. At the bottom of the hill was number 27: our house.
27 Boyne Park was (and remains so) one of the few old houses in the road that had not been converted into flats and was what an estate agent would refer to as ‘a substantial detached property. It was three storied house and had a strange conical tower growing from the roof. There was a small driveway which wound around the house to a garage which had been built for one of the original owners who was a doctor and who actually owned a car: a peculiarity in Edwardian Tunbridge Wells.
The house was on the corner of Boyne Park and the cul-de-sac of Mayfield Road and when we lived there was boarded to the front by a beech hedge and to the side by a grassy bank which in the spring hosted the most remarkable display of daffodils. There were seven of us living in 27: my parents, four children and our paternal grandmother who had assisted in the purchase of the property in exchange for a suite of rooms on the top floor.
27 was never happier than when it was entertaining and the house seemed to come alive at Christmas, when it would be filled with noise and laughter. Often on Christmas Eve there would be a great party and friends, neighbours and relations would fill the ground floor, oozing from the rooms into the large hall which was dominated by a wonderful staircase.
There was quite a community feel to the Boyne Park neighbourhood as many of the families were of similar ages, and the children were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. The roads around us were largely residential and free from heavy traffic so we could play quite safely and happily on them.
Boyne Park linked Mount Ephraim at the top end to Oakdale Road and tucked away at the end of the latter was The Twitten: a very narrow path between two houses, and which connected us to Royal Chase, which in turn led to Earl’s Road, Byng Road and Connaught Way – another world!
If I were to walk through The Twitten and turn left into Royal Chase I would eventually find myself joining Bishops Down Road near to its junction with Lake Road. Here, in an overgrown wilderness, there was an abandoned neglected and ruined house deep in the woods which was said to be haunted. Occasionally we would explore that house, but only on very bright sunny days when the chances of haunting were minimal (I knew that ruined houses such as this were places to be scared of thanks to watching Scooby Doo).
Hurrying away from the haunted house Bishops Down Road became, without ceremony, Culverden Down, which was lined with modern open plan homes. At the junction of Culverden Down and Coniston Avenue the road overlooked a narrow path alongside a small stream which ran through a tunnel under the road. Children would clamber down the muddy bank and play in the stream, sometimes the braver ones would get on their knees and crawl through the concrete culvert, although our parents always warned us not to in case we should be swept away (in retrospect I think that the stream was little more than an open sewer and that our mothers and fathers were more worried about what we might ingest rather than a possible drowning).
I knew this area well because Coniston Avenue led to my school.
My sisters and brother were slightly older than me and they had all attended St John’s Primary School, which was a wonderfully traditional establishment (I don’t know if it had separate doors for boys and girls, but I imagine so); however when I was old enough to commence my formal education I was sent to a brand new school: Bishops Down Primary School.
At the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s education was changing and Bishops Down was created to reflect the new attitudes and to stimulate creativity and individuality within its young charges. For example, rather than teaching us to read and spell by rote, the school used a system called ITA, which was a phonetics-based system to develop linguistic skills. ITA (the Initial Teaching Alphabet) had been invented by Sir James Pitman who, as it happened, owned the Pitman Publishing Company and for whom my father worked in London.
In the name of research I have looked up ITA online: it seems to be terribly complicated and it’s a wonder that we learned anything. Certainly to this day my spelling is hopeless, but it is equally true that I have grown up to have a fascination and love for the sounds and rhythms of the English language
The school itself was at the end of a quiet residential road called Rydal Drive and the single story building was set a little away from the houses up a short drive (which seemed to be terribly long to me). The main entrance led straight into the school hall in which we ate lunch and which would be the setting for my very first theatrical performance, playing a large cockerel in the annual nativity play. I learned a great deal about performing in that hall, for I also played violin in the school orchestra. I was not a good violinist and on one occasion during a school assembly I was scraping the instrument with such force that the tailpiece could not cope with the abuse any longer and snapped clean in two. There was a loud bang, followed by a TWANGGGGGGG (which was possibly more musical than anything that had preceded it), and the strings dangled listlessly from the tuning pegs like rosin-covered dreadlocks. In my panic I looked at our music teacher Mr Sutton and with tears in my eyes mouthed ‘what do I do?’ to which he replied ‘SING!’
At the rear of the building there was an L-shaped tarmac playground onto which the children would pour at playtime, but the real excitement came in the shape of ‘The Mound’. When the school had been built a large pile of rubble and earth and been left on site, and this was subtly landscaped into an organic, natural play area. Large concrete pipes were set into the base through which we could crawl, and the mound itself developed well-worn paths across it as we young Sir Edmund Hillarys made our proud way to the summit. I am sure that the mound is long gone – a victim to health and safety regulations and natural erosion, but if there was ever a better way of encouraging children to exercise I have not heard of it.
The main playing field was at the front of the school and it was here that I first fell in love with the game of cricket.
The Nevill Cricket Ground
In the 1970s Kent was a good county to grow up in if you liked cricket, for we boasted one of the best teams in the country. When England squared off against the Australians to battle for the Ashes the spine of the team came from Kent: Colin Cowdrey was the captain, Brian Luckhurst opened the batting, as would Bob Woolmer a few years later, Alan Knott was the greatest wicket keeper in the world, and Derek Underwood bamboozled opposition batsman with his medium paced spin bowling.
These men were heroes to me, as were others in the team: The West Indian John Shepherd, the little Pakistan master batsman Asif Iqbal, Alan Ealham who looked like a blacksmith on a village team and who would bash the ball to all corners of the ground and our fast bowler Kevin Jarvis, who couldn’t bat to save his life. For one week every year the Kent team would come to Tunbridge Wells and play two matches at The Nevill Ground.
The Nevill was, and still is, an elegant cricket ground which nestles among banks of rhododendron bushes. The County Cricket Week was held in May and if the weather had been favourable the red flowers would provide a vivid backdrop to the game. The main pavilion was grand, and that is where the Kent County Cricket Club members would sit in their ties and panama hats sipping their gins and tonics or Pimms, dozing in the sun, waking only to clap politely and mutter ‘well played’ through their bushy nicotine-stained moustaches.
The players themselves weren’t permitted into the pavilion, but had a small shed in the shadow of the main edifice from which they would watch the game. The changing rooms were behind and underneath the pavilion, so crowds of children would wait until the gladiators emerged and get them to sign autographs, which they were always happy to do.
Later in the summer I would sit in front of our black and white television and watch these men doing battle against Dennis Lilly and Jeff Thomson and the rest of the pantomime villains who made up the Australian team – I had met them, spoken to them and felt proud of them: I knew that they were fighting for ME!
The Carnival of 1969
Each summer Tunbridge Wells held a carnival, the highlight of which was the parade through the centre of the town.
In 1969 my father decided that we would enter a float to help raise awareness and funds for the local branch of the RSPCA and set about the project with customary gusto.
The construction of most carnival floats involved borrowing or hiring a flat-bed lorry from a local haulier and decorating it on the morning of the event. Some floats had a band playing, a choir singing or tinny recorded music blaring out; all of them were crowded with people trying not to fall off as the inevitably surly driver let out the clutch and his truck shuddered away, leaving behind a thick smog of diesel fumes. The Rotary Club and The Lions and the Local Scouts and Girl Guides and Army Cadets and Sea Scouts would all be out in force waving flags and collecting loose change, but Tunbridge Wells had never seen anything like the Dickens entry of ’69.
Dad decided to build a full-sized Loch Ness Monster (what was actually full size was, of course, open to debate but ours was thirty feet long), which would seem to float along the roads. The construction started many weeks before the event itself and involved many visits to RN Carr, Ironmongers in Southborough.
Carr’s had a specific smell that was only to be found in old ironmonger’s shops, and which was a mix of galvanised steel nails, cleats and screws wrapped in oiled brown paper, and garden compost. I am sure that Ronnie Barker bought his fork handles in Carr’s.
Back home in Boyne Park Nessie began to take shape. She was built on a strong (for which read heavy) wooden frame, which was covered with chicken wire to create the dinosaur’s shape. The chicken wire was then covered in papier mache, onto which was stuck the individual cups from a thousand cardboard egg boxes to give the impression of scaly skin. The whole thing was painted in a lurid green paint, and had the most luscious eyelashes you can imagine.
As the creation grew my mother was repeatedly dispatched to Carr’s to buy new supplies of nails and screws, and she became more and more frustrated at being patronised by the old boys who worked there. She would try and describe what she needed and the men would try to confuse her be asking the sort of question that the little lady of the house wouldn’t possibly understand: ‘are those screws to be steel or brass, countersunk, domed head, or flat? Timber: planed or rough? Paint: gloss or emulsion? Look, dear, why not just tell us what job your husband’s trying to do and we’ll see if we can help you out.’ To which mum fixed them with a steely eye and replied: ‘That’s very kind of you, and since you ask he is building a thirty foot long, seven foot high Loch Ness monster which is to be painted green and pushed along the road. It needs to billow smoke from its nostrils and be strong enough to last for a two mile journey: what would you suggest?’
The motivational force for this gargantuan creature was hidden beneath each of the famous humps and involved dad, my brother Ian and one other gullible – sorry, I mean willing – friend, pushing her along on little casters. If you think how wayward a modern shopping trolley is and incrementally increase that frustration from three feet to thirty you will get some idea as to what they faced on that summer’s day.
As the float was built to promote the RSPCA it was decided that Nessie would be a pet monster, so I was dressed up in a tweed jacket and kilt to walk ahead clinging on to her ‘lead’.
The day of the procession arrived and all of the floats were marshalled in a yard of the Old West Station (roughly where you would buy sandwiches in Sainsbury’s now) and slowly made its way through the town, involving a long push up the steep hill of Mount Pleasant. We passed the Town Hall and war memorial before reaching the Five Ways junction and turning sharp right at Chieseman’s into the then un-pedestrianised Calverley Road where the crowds were four or five deep, cheering, laughing and clapping.
I seem to remember that the whole thing ended up in Broadwater Down, but that seems so far away I can’t quite believe it.
We won a rosette for best float and I think that dad was probably more proud of that award than any other achievement in his life. For years afterwards Nessie’s head hung in our garage at Boyne Park – a reminder of an extraordinary and somewhat surreal day in the summer of 1969.
There is a lovely cine film on YouTube of the Tunbridge Wells Carnival, sadly not from 69, but the year before. However the flickering, faded pastel-coloured images give some sense of the event.
I don’t think that I can’t top Nessie, so I will bring this collection of nostalgia to a close, but I have no doubt that all too soon there will be more memories of Royal Tunbridge Wells to be shared.